Utah Voucher Vote No Referendum on School Choice

Published November 20, 2007

On November 6, voters in Utah defeated the nation’s first statewide universal voucher program by referendum. Since then, major newspapers and magazines have run stories questioning whether vouchers are dead as a form of school choice-and others have stated so outright. After all, according to their logic if the idea won’t fly in Utah-arguably one of the most conservative states in the union-it’s a lead balloon everywhere else.

Left-leaning organizations and their allies in mainstream media would love for legislators to believe this-but the fact is nothing could be further from the truth.

According to a poll conducted November 5-6-including the same day Utah voters decided their referendum-by YouGov/Polimetrix on behalf of The Economist, strong support for all forms of school choice exists at the grassroots level. The pollsters found:

  • 53 percent of respondents favor vouchers;
  • 90 percent say vouchers should be used at any school of a parent’s choice, religious or not;
  • 69 percent would like vouchers to be available to everyone, not just students in public schools with low test scores and high dropout rates;
  • 61 percent think private schools in their area are generally better than the public schools; and
  • 67 percent say private schools give their students an edge in life.

Clearly, these results contradict what the mainstream media has reported about voters’ attitudes toward vouchers.

Utah voters failed to uphold the voucher program for several reasons. A major one is that when an initiative is put on a referendum, all an opposition group has to do is raise reasonable doubt about its potential in voters’ minds. Voters generally respond negatively to dramatic policy shifts.

Moreover, the National Education Association (NEA) spent at least one dollar from every teacher nationwide to defeat the Utah voucher effort. NEA used a coordinated misinformation campaign and every weapon in its arsenal to ensure its monopoly on public education is protected.

Bottom line: The Utah voucher vote was a referendum on a state spending bill-not on vouchers, and not on school choice.

The fact is school choice-and vouchers-remains popular with voters. Over the past five years, more school choice programs have been enacted nationwide than at any time in history, in various forms and locations, including:

  • Arizona’s corporate tax credit program, and voucher programs for special-needs and foster children (all operating since 2006);
  • The District of Columbia’s voucher program (since 2004-05);
  • Florida’s corporate tax credit program (since 2002);
  • Georgia’s special-needs voucher program (2007);
  • Iowa’s personal tax credit program (since 2006);
  • Ohio’s voucher program for autistic children (since 2004) and voucher program for students in failing public schools (since 2006-07);
  • Rhode Island’s corporate tax credit program (since 2007); and
  • Utah’s voucher program for special-needs students (since 2005-06), which was unaffected by the universal voucher referendum vote.

Taking this into account along with the exponential growth of homeschooling and charter schools over the same timeframe, it is clear parents increasingly are frustrated with governments’ ineffective hold on their children’s education. They want the freedom to experiment with the type of school that works best for their children, and they don’t want anyone telling them what they “must” or “can’t” do.

Utah’s voucher program vote should not be understood as a “national” referendum on the issue, because Utah is hardly representative of the nation at large: It has a much lower poverty rate and a much higher median household income, and it also is more culturally homogenous than other states with choice programs. In fact, the highest levels of support for school choice are found among the kinds of inner-city and minority communities that are scarce in Utah.

It is tempting to try to draw broad lessons from Utah’s voucher battle. But the reality is that this was-as is always the case with ballot initiatives-a local battle and nothing more. The Utah referendum vote was far from the final word on school choice. It was merely part of an ongoing conversation that’s steadily getting louder.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News. Michael Van Winkle ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s legislative specialist for education issues.